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Report: The Rate Of Skyscraper Development To More Than Quadruple In Coming Decades

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The world's cities, which are already defined by their skyscrapers, are going to see the development of a lot more of these tall towers in the coming decades. That will occur as further urbanization occurs globally and if the current rate of development persists.

View of Lower Manhattan and the World Trade Center, New York
View of Lower Manhattan and the World Trade Center, New York City

By 2050, there will be 6,800 skyscapers per billion people, compared with the current total of 800 skyscapers per billion, according to a study called "An Extreme Value Analysis of the Urban Skyline" by Jonathan Auerback and Phyllis Wan of Columbia University. The report analyzes buildings that are over 150 meters (492 feet) high, or 40 stories.

Since after World War II, skyscrapers have been on a growth trajectory. Using data from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, the study found that the number of such properties has increased 8% per year since 1950 in a remarkably stable pattern.

Future growth in skyscrapers will be to accommodate the vast predicted growth of urban populations, which the U.N. estimates will reach 6 billion people by 2050, up from 2 billion in 1985.

"Cities change in response to population growth by either increasing density — the population per land area — or expanding boundaries ... The prevailing paradigm among urban planners is to preserve city boundaries and encourage density," the study says.  

Auerback and Wan also predict that many skyscrapers in 2050 will be taller than they are now, with the tallest at more than 3,720 feet high. Currently the tallest skyscraper in the world, according to the Council on Tall Buildings, is the Buji Khalifa in Dubai, which stands at 2,717 feet. 

The report even posits that there is a small chance that the tallest skyscraper in 2050 will surpass one mile in height. Currently such a building exists only in speculative (and even fanciful) plans, such as Frank Lloyd Wright's famed but non-existent The Illinois, which would rise a mile over the state of that name.

Since the study extrapolates from current development trends, it is possible that not so many tall buildings will be developed by 2050. Black swan events, such as war or plague or economic dislocation, are always possible between now and then, according to a review of the Auerback and Wan study by the MIT Technology Review, which might slow skyscraper growth significantly.

"On the other hand, technology breakthroughs could make it cheaper and easier to build tall buildings," the review says. "In that case, the numbers could be significantly higher."